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the love you build your house around

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The church organ rumbled to life as Steve fixed Andy’s blankets, praying to the universe more than God that Andy would sleep through the sermon. He’d convinced his parents to sit in the back pew, just in case, but every loud noise was a possible tantrum on the rise, and Father Luke liked to preach like he was rousing the dead.

Steve’s parents were devout once-a-month Catholics, as many of Hawkins residents were. His parents woke early on the last Sunday of every month to put on their best, shine their shoes and finish potluck dishes, before ushering Steve to the church for the monthly social.

Steve was right to assume that his parents had extended their trip, but only by one week, possibly so his father wouldn’t miss two socials in a row. This wasn’t a factual assumption, but Steve had spent enough time schmoozing parishioners on behalf of his parents to see the parallels between moderate church attendance and frequent country club lunches.

“Baby, he’s going to be cold if you do it like that,” Steve’s mother said, leaning around him to adjust Andy’s blankets herself.

“Mama, he’s fine.”

“His foot was sticking out.”

“He’s got socks on.”

“Yes, and the air conditioning in this building is merciless. Steven, don’t you think I would know how to look after babies by now?”

“Yes, but Mama—”

“I’m just trying to teach you, so you know how to do it as well. It’s extremely dangerous for babies to get sick. Babies can die of all kinds of things.”

In the aisle, Max was offering him a little wave as her stepdad paraded their family towards the front pew, one of his hands on her shoulder as they walked. Billy stood on her other side, jaw set and eyes forward, dangling earing swapped with a stud and shirt buttoned up like it only was for church.

“I know, Mama,” Steve said absently, waving back at Max.

In the last week, Billy had come over once more, just to chat and watch TV. That second night, he’d sat with Andy on his lap for over an hour, saying he didn’t want to wake him by playing hot potato every time Steve got up to check on the food in the oven. And yet.

“That’s Dustin’s friend, right?” Mama asked. “Susan’s girl, Max? She’s so pretty, do you think he has a chance with her?”

“She has a boyfriend.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that. I’m not surprised. I’m glad she’s settled in here well, it’s hard, coming to a small town like this. Especially when her brother is the way he is.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, eyes settling on the back of Billy’s head.

“If you’d like, suing him for assault is still an option, sweetie. I just know they wouldn’t be able to afford it.”

 

After church, there was always a gap between the closing hymn and people arriving in the attached gym for the social, that time filled with shuffling feet and passing hellos, small talk and well wishes. Normally, Steve would be following along behind his father, smiling tight and shaking hands in some misguided attempt to make business connections.

Maybe it was because his father had decided Steve was a lost cause, or maybe it was because babies weren’t good for business deals, but his father had wandered off after the sermon without a passing nod to his son, leaving Steve alone with his mama.

Andy was growing a little fussy again, his blissful nap during the proceedings broken as his seat was clipped back into the stroller. He kept dropping his soother from his mouth, his wiggling, mittened-hands rubbing against his cheeks in its place. He’d started scratching his face more often recently, which Mrs. Marshal had assured Steve was normal. Steve had thought all the matching mitts included with Andy’s onesies were for fashionably cold days. He’d been set straight rather quickly.

“Steve, you remember Mrs. Fielton, right?” Mama asked, gesturing to the town’s most notable florist as if Steve hadn’t seen her every fourth Sunday for his entire life.

“Yes, of course,” he said, reaching a hand around the stroller to offer hers a shake. “You’re looking lovely today, ma’am.”

Mrs. Fielton held his hand a beat too long, too firm, before smoothing down her skirt. “Well, it is a Sunday. It’s important to dress your best for the Lord.” She gestured to the stroller. “I see your son feels the same. Those are the cutest little overalls.”

Andy had wiggled out of his blankets enough that they gaped at the front, little fists working in the air. As if in reply, he let out an ear-splitting wail.

“Shit, sorry,” Steve said, ducking to fuss with him.

Mrs. Fielton took a sharp breath as his mama said, “Language!”

Like Steve had the fucking time to deal with that right now. People were already looking his way, conversations growing more meandering and murmuring. There goes that Harrington kid, with a baby out of fucking wedlock, just loaded with inappropriate thoughts and hormones.

Jesus fucking Christ, Steve hated church.

“I’m just going to,” he gestured over his shoulder towards the rest rooms, hoping his mama would get the hint. She was already trying to guide Mrs. Fielton into conversation with Mr. and Mrs. Darlington, and Steve didn’t know if that was an insult or a blessing.

 

It had never really occurred to Steve than the men’s washroom didn’t have a changing table. In fact, he was sure it hadn’t occurred to many people, because women changed babies, it was only right and fair.

Nancy was going to say that parenthood was making him into a feminist.

Honestly, parenthood was just making him fucking tired.

Steve found himself in the small room tucked at the end of the hall, the one intended for breastfeeding mothers. Alongside three cramped armchairs, there were two nursery-style change tables shoved inside. Steve didn’t bother with the lights, wanted to draw as little attention to himself as possible. The far wall of the room was all stained-glass windows, like the chapel, washing Andy in blue and green as Steve set up the table and laid Andy on his blanket.

Andy was still crying, but the movement of the stroller had quelled his screams into sad gurgles, snot collecting on his upper lip. His hair was still as blonde as when he had been born, but his eyes had started to shift, gray becoming blue. The doctor had said it could take up to a year for a baby’s eyes to take their true shade, that they could still become a rich chocolate brown, but something in Steve’s gut knew better.

Andy’s eyes were shifting towards a clear blue, like the stained-glass reflected on his wispy hair. One piece of evidence about his DNA.

Steve peppered Andy’s face in kisses once he was clean and fresh, grinned when Andy grinned and hit his little fist into Steve’s cheek. Andy had the shape of his eyes, the shape of his cheekbones, his ears. One birthmark by his dimple. But he was also someone else’s kid.

“We ready?” he asked. “I think grandma will want to give you your bottle. Should we go get some lunch?”

There was something a little vindictive about calling his mom grandma, when she was like, forty. Something that made Steve feel like he should be darting out of the way to avoid being swatted.

“How many times do I have to tell you?” A man asked.

Steve stood up straight, but no one had come in. From the grate in the wall, another voice said, “What did I do?”

The room next door was for Sunday School classes, but Sunday School got pushed until after the social, and neither of those men sounded like children.

Steve quickly scooped up Andy, who started to wiggle and cry when Steve tried to put him back in the stroller. Which was perfect, really.

“You know not to talk to your mother like that.”

“I didn’t say shit to Susan.”

What did you just say?”

Fuck it. Steve grabbed the diaper bag and threw it over his shoulder, before scooping up Andy again and tucking him against his chest. He could come back for the stroller later.

“I didn’t mean her any disrespect. Sir.”

Steve jiggled the door open and stepped out into the hall, one hand soothing over Andy’s back as Andy wiggled. The voices were even louder from the hallway.

“Don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not. She asked if Max had asked me to look at her skateboard last night. She hadn’t, because she wasn’t even home last night. I came back from the pool at like, eight.”

“So, you say, sorry, Mom, she didn’t.”

“I said sorry, I was fucking respectful, I don’t know what you want.”

The door was open half a foot, wide enough to make out Billy’s face around the bulk of his father, how Billy clenched his teeth. Dread pooled in Steve’s belly, the feeling of intrusion mingling with realization and familiarity.

Billy’s father slapped his son so fast that Steve didn’t see the wind up, just registered the sharp smack.

Steve gasped around the lump in his throat as Billy stumbled back.

“Don’t you dare fucking talk to me like that. That’s exactly what I mean.” Billy’s father stepped forward to grab the front of Billy’s shirt, yanking him in close. He spoke low, mean. “You may talk to all the other shit-stains in this town that way, but you respect me. You respect your mother. You respect God in his house.”

Billy took a deep breath, eyes darting away. The second they locked to Steve’s, something broke in Steve’s chest.

Billy’s father gave him a shake. “You look at me when I speak to you.”

But Billy had gone stiff, even as he glanced back to his dad.

Andy gave a feeble cry.

Fuck.

In an instant, Billy’s dad was wheeling on his heel, nostrils flared as he stepped towards the door. “Mind your manners,” he said, sneered. Looked Steve up and down in a way that made Steve feel like spiders were crawling through his insides. “Raise your accident better than this one.”

Then he slammed the door shut.

 

It was another five days before Steve saw Billy, another five days of mulling over the metallic bile gurgling up his throat. He’d drink the same cup of coffee until it was cold each day, then he’d do it the next, the same wax on, wax off, brain ache, bellyache.

There was something he was missing.

When Billy came to see him, it was early evening. Steve’d been home from work an hour, just long enough to shower and learn that his parents had plans. Sunset golf and dinner at the country club. Romantic, or something.

Steve had just finished changing Andy into a new onesie when there was a knock on the front door, a pause, and another knock.

“I’m coming, one second!” He said, making sure Andy was comfortable on his play mat in the living room before heading to the door.

“If you’re looking for my parents—” Steve stopped, door half open.

Billy stood on the porch in shorts and a t-shirt, necklace glinting against the cotton under the hot glow of the setting sun. He held a pizza box in one hand and a crumpled paper bag in the other. “You eat yet?” he asked.

That feeling from the weekend bloomed in Steve’s chest again, accompanied by all the warmth of summer, the bitterness on his tongue. He said, “No, I, uh. Come in?”

Because what did you say, after that?

Billy pushed around him in the doorway like nothing had changed, showed himself to the kitchen to set down the food and grab plates. He looked good, Steve realized. Not that Billy usually didn’t, but there was something different in the way Steve registered Billy’s thighs, what working at the pool had done to his complexation. He had a bruise on his cheekbone, or maybe it was dirt. From his ear, he wore a crucifix.

Steve swallowed, watched Billy’s shirt strain as he moved his shoulders. Maybe it had to do with thinking of Billy as wounded for a week. Or maybe it had to do with how Billy was gesturing a slice of pizza in his direction, like, “Are you eating, or what? I also got wings, and sodas. Where’s the kid?”

“He’s in the living room. Uh, having tummy time, or whatever.”

“Tummy time?” Billy scrunched up his nose.

“Yeah, it’s when you like, lie them on their stomachs, so they can work on their neck muscles? Apparently making them sleep like that is like, bad or something, but as an exercise—”

“Babies are fucking weird.” Billy opened his Coke, bottle hissing.

Steve took that as an opportunity to stick an unreasonably large section of pizza into his mouth.

“Is he supposed to do that on his own?”

“Well, I was going to sit and play with him? So, not technically.”

Billy loaded up his plate and licked his thumb before wandering into the other room. Steve did the same, grabbing a roll of paper towels on the way. His mother would kill them if they got wing sauce on the floor. She was already mad at Andy for puking on her carpets, and he couldn’t even sit upright yet, so.

When Steve entered the room, he was expecting to find Billy sprawled on the couch, legs spread wide like he always sat, plate resting on his thigh as he watched Andy wiggle from afar. Instead, Billy was sitting cross legged on the floor, lightly rubbing Andy’s back, munching on a slice of pizza at the same time. Which was – it was a lot of things.

Steve plopped down on Andy’s other side before picking up a wing. “You better not get sauce on my kid.”

“What, is his rich little onesie dry-clean-only?”

Steve snorted. “Who the fuck would buy something like that for a baby?”

“I don’t know? You’ve seen those fucking weird little baptism dresses they buy babies, right? Those definitely can’t go in the wash.”

“Which is probably why they never get washed? You really think they’d wear them twice?”

“I don’t know, man.” Billy picked up a stuffed bee with crinkly wings and wiggled it in Andy’s face. “Are you getting him baptized?”

“Uh,” Steve said. Andy cooed. “I don’t know. I hadn’t really thought about it? Probably not. I’m not really the church type, you know?”

Billy smiled tight, took a sip from his coke. “Yeah, same.”

And that thing sat between them again, that stained-glass feeling from when their eyes met, palm-print stinging Billy’s cheek.

“I didn’t mean to—”

“What?” Billy asked. “See that? Doesn’t fucking matter.”

It did, but.

The cross hanging from Billy’s ear swung when he tilted his head, and Steve didn’t know what that was about, either, if Billy wasn’t about church, wasn’t about God.

For a while, they sat like that, Andy squealing between them as he watched the dancing bee, pizza and wings disappearing as they sipped their drinks and licked their fingers.

“Your parents are really cool with this, huh?”

Steve shrugged, threw his napkin on his plate. Shifted so his knees were tucked to his chest. “I wouldn’t say they’re thrilled? Mama is happy to have a baby around, but dad thinks I’ve fucked up my whole life. He just kind of tolerates Andy, you know? Like. He’ll help feed him and stuff, if he has to, but I think it’s just so my mom doesn’t give him shit.”

“I noticed her all over Andy at church.”

He’d been looking?

Steve said, “She keeps telling me I’m doing shit wrong. Even when I’m doing it the way she showed me. I think maybe it’s just a mom thing.”

“What about those brats you hang out with? Max hasn’t been talking about you much.”

“I’m less interesting now that I have to work all the time. Which is fucking bullshit, because I totally give them free ice cream and help them sneak into movies for free. I’m cool.”

Billy smiled like maybe he was trying not to laugh, and Steve didn’t know if it was a you suck laugh, or a they suck laugh, or maybe a you all suck laugh, but like. Fuck Billy, anyway.

“Dustin is still over all the time because he likes that I have videogames more than he dislikes Andy’s crying. Which he wouldn’t say, obviously, but you should have seen the face he made when Andy spat up on him.”

Which. Okay, yeah, any time Andy threw up was super fucking gross, but it was a particular kind of gross when it happened to Dustin. And maybe Steve was a little unfairly bitter still about Dustin being a stand-in for a magical stork dropping a baby on his porch. (It’s science, Steve. And there are no storks involved. They didn’t teach you that in health class?)

Whatever.

He shifted again and scooped Andy up, cradling him in his lap. “Speaking of which, it’s about time for your dinner. You need some food, little man? You going to throw up on me?”

Andy waved his little fist in the air.

A car rumbled outside.

“Maybe I should get going, then.” Billy stood with a grunt before bending over to pick up all their dishes.

Steve watched how his muscles shifted, his arms flexed. Cleared his throat. Said, “You just got here.” Like a moron.

“I told Susan I would help her with something,” Billy said, but his eyes were on the font window, watching the driveway, maybe waiting for something. Like he hadn’t brought food over without being asked, hadn’t pushed his way in.

An engine died. Doors opened and closed.

Oh.

“Can you believe Eugenia? Only that women could get that drunk so early in the day. Who pukes in the dining room?”

Steve stood and followed Billy into the kitchen, Andy held to Steve’s chest as Billy set the plates into the sink. Ceramic clinked against metal as the front door opened. Weight coiled in Steve’s chest.

“Steve?”

“In the kitchen, Mama!” He called over his shoulder.

“Is someone here? Whose car is on the road?”

“You don’t have to go just because they’re here,” Steve said to Billy, quick, words nearly under his breath as Billy frowned towards the front door, mouth partly open.

Billy licked his lips, said “Nah, I just gotta split.”

But Steve remembered how Billy had been the first time he came over, how he’d asked about parents. Thought about how Mama sighed in church.

Suing him for assault is still an option, sweetie.

Raise your accident better than this one.

Steve followed him to the front hall, watched him make small talk, slide on his shoes.

Watched Dad scowl and Mama smile, strained.

“I didn’t know you were friends with him,” Mama said, once the Camaro was roaring down the road.

“It’s kind of a new thing? Why are you home so early?”

Mama rolled her eyes. “Baby, have I got a story to tell you.”

 

Billy came over two days later, and two days after that. He seemed to always show up with some kind of food and some kind of smile. It was always after work, too, always when Steve’s father’s black Audi was missing from the driveway.

Steve felt old anger slipping away, the more times Billy came by to just shoot the shit, to be helpful. And it was suspicious, really. Caused an itch at the back of Steve’s brain that he couldn’t quite scratch, couldn’t get his arm to bend at the right angle to get at it. Because Billy had never been helpful before, hadn’t really been kind, but the more Steve thought about it, mulled over all their early interactions, he realized that Billy hadn’t really been mean, either.

Like, obviously he was a massive dick, but.

Until that night at the Byers’, what had sat between them was more like fizzling competition. Or it would have been, if Steve had been on his A-game, hadn’t been heartbroken and bloodied by Nancy’s bullshit. Before Nancy, Steve probably would have risen to Billy’s bait, batted him back, eventually sniped at him until they were on more even ground.

That’s not what happened, obviously, but until the Byers’, Billy had been jostling, but not violent. More live-wire nerves and shiny teeth. Potential to snap, but no real trigger.

The more Steve watched Billy lounge on his couch, or watched him hold Andy, the more Steve thought that maybe Billy’d never thought he would snap. Not that badly. Not so big. Not at Steve.

As Billy came over two days later, and two days later, and a day later, and three days after that, history blurred with time, blurred Billy’s edges. By late September, Steve had stopped counting how many times Billy had shown up on his porch, because it seemed like a useless practice. A tally ever-ticking upward.

Then Billy didn’t come for two weeks, without a word.

Steve told himself he didn’t miss him.

 

The porch light cast the driveway in yellowed shadows, fallen leaves skittering in and around Steve’s car, spinning in tiny tornadoes. He burped Andy against his shoulder, not sure what he was looking for in the gloom. It looked like it would likely rain. Mama had promised him she’d bring back bagels from New York, but Andy didn’t understand the concept of bagels, and telling him for the fifteenth time seemed like a waste of breath.

He wanted to call Billy.

And it was stupid, really, because there were so many other people he could call. But all the kids had flooded in to bug him at work, and he’d told them they were fucking annoying, so he had to pretend to ignore them on principle for at least another two days. And Nancy and Jonathan were probably making out, or some shit, which Steve liked to pretend they didn’t do.

And Mama? Well, calling Mama would just be sad, so.

His final choices were Billy and Robin. Steve knew which of them was the safer bet, the better option. The one that didn’t make his brain itch.

But Steve wanted to call Billy.

He had the number, even, scrawled next to Max’s name in the phonebook by the fridge. He wouldn’t have to call around. Wouldn’t have to suffer the fucking stupid indignities of telephone tag, like, Hey Tommy, it’s been a while, call me when you get the chance? and Hey man, it’s Steve, do you have Hargrove’s number? and Hi, is this the Hargrove residence? I’m looking to speak with Billy?

It would be easy. Punch a few buttons. Lean against the kitchen sink while the phone rang, and rang, and rang.

Steve realized he’d never needed to call Billy before, because Billy had always called first. He’d show up before Steve thought to go looking for him. Maybe there was a reason for that? Maybe Steve was bad at staying in touch. Or maybe Steve was just thinking about it too deeply, mind all tangled up like telephone cord as Andy belched.

 

Exactly thirty-two minutes later, Steve caved.

He watched Andy from the living room doorway, telephone cord stretched to its limit as he listened to the phone ring. Andy had fallen fast and hard for the baby gym Mama had come home with one day, and was happy to babble with the dangling animals and shake them in his little fists, so long as Steve was within view.

Sometimes it seemed easy, being small.

The phone rang and rang. Steve pressed his shoulder into the doorway.

Just when he thought it would skip to voicemail, there was a crackle, and, “Hello?”

“Hey, Max,” Steve said, aiming for casual. Of the possible outcomes, her picking up the phone was good, but not great. “Is Billy around?”

She paused a moment, and Steve could imagine her expression, eyebrows downturned, something sour on her tongue. “Why?”

“I want to talk to him?”

“No shit, genius, but why?”

Steve rubbed his eyes, said, “I’m looking for financial advice on investment properties. Duh. Why does it matter why I want to talk to him? Is he there, or what?”

“Screw you,” she said, before shouting, “Billy! It’s for you!” so loud Steve had to pull the phone from his ear. She probably still had the mouthpiece up to her lips, the fucking brat.

There was some conversation he couldn’t make out, some stomping, all muffled like maybe she’d finally pressed the phone to her shoulder, like a normal fucking human being. Then Billy was breathing down the line, like, “You shouldn’t call me here.”

“Uh, hi, good evening to you too, glad you’re doing well.”

“Shut up, did you want something?”

It was like being plunged into cold water, that sinking-shocked feeling, throat-choked familiar confusion. It had crossed his mind a few times that he might have fucked up, somehow. That he might have said something shitty or stupid to make Billy hate him, but.

“Yeah, I just – I rented some movies on my way home from work, and was wondering if maybe you’d want to watch one?”

Which wasn’t the plan, but Steve’s mouth was running on its own. Everything felt fucking necessary, suddenly. Eager, important.

He needed to get a fucking grip.

“Uh. Yeah, shit, I guess? Let me find my keys. I’ll be there in twenty.”

Billy didn’t sound happy, but the pressure in Steve’s throat released as the line went dead.

 

Steve cleaned up the front hallway and made popcorn, because he wasn’t sure what else to do with his hands. Andy didn’t like the sound of the microwave or the dancing kernels, but he also didn’t start crying, so whatever, small miracles.

By the time Billy was knocking on the front door, Steve had two open beers on the coffee table and the VCR ready to go. “Hey,” he said as he swung the door open.

Billy held his shoulders stiff inside his jean jacket, keys still clenched in his fist. “Hey,” he replied, short.

Steve frowned as he stepped out of the way to let him in. “Look, if I was being a dick, you could have just told me –”

“What?” Billy kicked off a boot. “I never fucking said you were. Where the fuck did you get that?”

“Uh, literally everything today?” Steve wanted to include everything from the last two weeks, but there was something more profound about complaining about silence, and Steve wasn’t sure he wanted to go there, yet.

“I showed up, didn’t I? I just don’t want you calling my fucking house.”

The why was left unsaid, maybe sitting beside that stained-glass feeling they still didn’t talk about. Billy took a deep breath and slowly unclenched his fists, moved to undo his other boot. “What movie are we watching?” he asked, like it was that simple, could be that easy.

Raiders of the Lost Ark.

“Christ, you have bad taste.”

“I also have beer?”

Steve and Andy both liked Indiana Jones, thank you very much, but Billy was fighting the smallest of smiles, and fighting him didn’t seem worth it.

 

They sat near the middle of the couch, popcorn between them and Andy in Steve’s lap as images moved across the screen. When Billy was finished with his beer, he set it on the coffee table and twisted the bottleneck between his fingers. Mama was going to lose her shit, they should have used coasters.

“I’ve been really busy,” Billy said.

“Uh.”

“No, look, like. I’m not mad at you? Or whatever you think is up. I’ve just been trying to figure some shit out with my old man, because he’s still fucking pissed that I’m waiting a year before college, and I got a gig at the auto shop that’s eating my time.”

“Which one?”

“Lawson’s auto? The one over by the arcade.”

Steve shifted Andy’s blanket with one buttery hand and said, “Why didn’t you tell me?” Like he thought he had the right to know. It wasn’t like Billy had signed a contract saying he’d stop by.

Billy shrugged, fingers still twisting the bottle. “I didn’t think you’d care? It always seems like I’m kind of in your way, coming over all the time.”

Steve thought about Billy tugging him up by his armpits after class, about Billy shoving Tommy into the gym lockers. He thought about the first time Billy had fought Andy from his arms, back when Steve didn’t want to admit that he needed help. It wasn’t the same, then. Hadn’t been the same in a long time.

“What? No, you’re not. Dude, if I wanted you gone, I’d tell you, alright? I did tell you, like, months ago, but now we’re friends because you didn’t listen to me, so.”

“That’s a lot of mixed signals.”

“Jesus, I invited you over.”

“Yeah, but,” Billy shrugged and licked his teeth. “It’s stupid, I guess. Doesn’t matter.”

They didn’t speak again until Steve’s beer was empty, movie most of the way through. “Why are you taking a year before you go to college? You got good grades, didn’t you?”

“I just wanna save some money, before I go, you know? Make sure I have enough to get gone and stay gone. I don’t want to have to rely on my dad.”

Steve wasn’t sure how he felt about that, wasn’t sure he really wanted to process it, a little lightheaded from the beer and the flickering screen. “Oh. Makes sense, I guess.”

It was heavy. Unwanted. He shouldn’t have asked.

“I should put Andy to bed,” Steve said.

“Okay, yeah, of course.”

He was expecting Billy to leave, maybe, or go out for a smoke. Instead, Billy paused the movie and followed Steve up the stairs, like he’d been asked to, and he hadn’t, but. Steve wasn’t about to push it. Wasn’t about to point out that Billy had never been upstairs. That it would have been weird for Billy to ask to see the nursery, because there was something private about where a person slept, the place they were most vulnerable.

Steve turned on the light as he reached the top of the stairs but left the light off in Andy’s room when he headed to the crib. He could feel Billy’s eyes on him as he tucked Andy in and kissed his forehead. When he turned, Billy was leaning against the doorway, arms crossed over his chest.

“You wanna keep watching that movie?” Steve asked. Almost wanted Billy to say no.

“I might, for a bit. I probably gotta go soon, though. If I break curfew, it’s better to stay out until morning. It’s not really worth it.”

He said it like he was used to sleeping in his car, maybe, or spread out like an alley cat on someone’s couch. He said it like it was a simple fact, and not one of the most fucked up things Steve had ever heard.

As Steve stepped out of the nursery and closed the door, Billy stepped back, but he kept his shoulder to the wall, arms crossed over his chest, like maybe he was waiting for something, searching for something. Billy seemed to do a lot of that. Searching, waiting.

Steve found himself leaning too, a cloying feeling spreading through his throat, from his stomach up. Over-warm and too tight. Searching, waiting, wanting.

He wanted Billy to go. He didn’t want Billy to leave.

“I think it’s only got about twenty minutes left,” Steve said, stupid. “You got twenty minutes?”

Billy checked his watch and grimaced. “Yeah, but it might be cutting it close.”

“Maybe next time, then? It’s a five-day rental.”

And Steve didn’t know why he was still talking. Why he kept saying stay, stay, stay¸ other than New York bagels and how shitty it felt to watch TV alone.

Billy’s jaw worked a second before he cleared his throat, like, “Yeah, okay. I could do tomorrow?”

“I think my parents will be home tomorrow night. Unless you don’t mind seeing them?”

Because Steve didn’t mind, but Billy seemed to mind, and Steve felt like he’d already twisted his ankle in enough potholes for one night. He didn’t need to fuck up another thing.

Billy took a moment to weigh that, too, said, “What about Thursday?”

“I think they’re doing something at the country club. They probably won’t be back until midnight?”

“Thursday, then.”

“Cool, okay.”

Billy had soft freckles along the bridge of his nose, skin fried from the summer sun. Maybe they ran in his family, or maybe he’d had too many sunburns as a child, California heat digging into his skin, lifelong scars of blue sky and waves.

Nancy’d be fucking proud of how fucking poetic Steve had been lately. See if she’d shit on his essays now.

Not that he was really thinking about that, watching Billy’s cheeks as Billy shifted his socked feet on the carpet. Billy cleared his throat, said, “I might have time to watch it now?”

“We’d have to pick something else for Thursday.”

They’d never made plans before.

Billy didn’t nod, just kind of grabbed Steve’s elbow, thumb pressing too-hard into the soft fleshy bit. He looked a little like a man headed to the gallows as he searched Steve’s eyes. Steve didn’t know when their voices had grown so soft, their bodies so magnetic. In a quick jerk, Billy cracked their teeth together, hardly a kiss. It was more hollowed-out, animal. He pulled back as quickly as he’d moved in.

For a moment, Steve just stared, lips moving too late, like the universe had lagged.

When he didn’t say anything, Billy stepped back with a jagged laugh and rubbed his mouth with the back of his wrist. “I can’t keep fucking doing this,” he said.

Steve couldn’t breathe, but wheels were turning in him, somewhere. A sort of thud as a shoe dropped.

Billy was talking too fast for Steve to keep up, still too busy processing what that even was. A kiss, obviously, but the why-what-hows of it were all tangled up. Billy wasn’t like that. Steve wasn’t like that. But the evidence was right in front of him, still stinging his teeth. Permanent. Undeniable.

There was something Steve was missing, a second shoe dangling above, waiting, waiting.

Billy said, “I’ve been fucking busy, which is why I wasn’t visiting, seriously, but also, it’s kind of fucked up that I’ve even been coming over in the first place, because it’s – you don’t – I’m just going to go, alright? And if you don’t tell anyone about this, I won’t come by again. Fuck, this is the stupidest shit I have ever done.”

And he was turning towards the stairs, back already to Steve, and all Steve could get out was, “Stay here tonight.” Like a goddamn moron.

It was Billy’s turn to stall out, looking over the bannister with his fists bunched up at his sides. “What? You feel bad, so you wanna fucking humour me? Rub it in a little?”

“No, not like – We can just finish the movie? And uh, then you won’t have to deal with your dad –”

“Do you have brain damage?”

Steve was starting to think he did. It would explain a lot.

“You’re going to get shitty sleep, because I’ll have to get up to feed Andy at least twice, but –”

Billy turned on his heel and stomped back to Steve, grabbing both his shoulders tight and giving them a shake. “Did you even listen to me?”

“It’s fine, Billy.”

And it wasn’t. Steve wasn’t really sure what it was. He was suddenly clammy, gut through the floor and heart vibrating, but he knew he didn’t want Billy to go. He knew that if he let him, whatever kind of friendship they’d been building would fracture and fall apart.

Billy’s nostrils flared as he gripped him tight, some sort of confusion-hurt-anger bleeding around his edges, dire optimism. His next kiss was still too sharp, nervous teeth-clicking and too much pressure, but this time Steve grappled his arms in return, pushed back against Billy’s lips until their mouths were softer in the middle, until Billy’s hands were loose around Steve’s biceps.

It wasn’t beautiful or logical or sound. They traded kisses like that a while, Billy caging Steve against the wall, Steve’s hands sliding up into Billy’s hair. Steve realized they’d left the lights and the TV on downstairs. He wondered if the front door was locked. He thought about what it meant to have Billy’s body on his own, how he felt about it, should have felt about it.

Steve wasn’t a fag, he’d said so himself, but Billy had firm hands on his hips, sunshine on his skin. Billy didn’t care that he had a kid. Billy had a crush on him, apparently.

Steve didn’t want to be greedy and do the wrong thing, but he was having trouble identifying what he should be guilty about, which parts were greedy. He thought Billy was hot and strong, had realized he was kind, but he wouldn’t have catalogued those thoughts as a crush, exactly. They were more like honourable mentions his brain would spit out when Billy was leaning against the kitchen counters, summer sun hitting his hair, laughing at whatever dumb shit Steve had said.

But Steve liked kissing Billy. He liked his stubble, even though it was strange. He liked how Billy smelled. And maybe that was what he should be guilty about, that him liking kissing wasn’t the same as him liking Billy, so for Billy, this wasn’t the same.

Not that he knew that Billy liked-liked him, but the kisses and melodramatic bullshit were pretty good indicators. Both of them were being pretty fucking melodramatic, actually.

“Fuck you,” Billy said, resting their foreheads together.

Steve laughed, said, “What did I do now?”

And it was as nonsensical as the rest of it, really.

“You’re just too hot, with your dumb hair, and those like, dick sucking lips.”

“My what?”

“You got good fucking lips, alright? It’s a compliment. I’m trying to tell you, like, I’m into you. Really into you.”

“Me too,” Steve said. He thought it was going to be a lie, but it didn’t feel like one. It felt as tangible as Billy’s hair between his fingers, a terrifying something that had been growing between his ribs, finally coming to bloom on his tongue.

“Cool, so, like,” Billy looked down the hall. “Which of these bedrooms is yours?”

 

Maybe they should have exercised some patience, all things considered. Steve’s brain was still reeling, but it was hard to think about that when Billy was hot between his thighs, Billy’s teeth grazing his jaw as they lay on Steve’s bed.

In Billy’s defense, Steve was the one who crawled on top of Billy the second they sat down. There was something eager in newness, and Steve hadn’t messed around with someone in a long fucking time. Kissing Tammy Thompson at prom didn’t count for shit. But kissing Billy? Kissing Billy felt solid, serious. Like there was gravity beyond what it meant about Steve as a person.

Billy had his hands under Steve’s shirt, thick fingers digging into his ribs, and Steve couldn’t help the way his dick kicked every time Billy murmured against his skin. He was so fucking turned on, fucking electric from how Billy touched him, and it was fucking weird, but it also felt right. Grounding. Glorious. Natural.

Steve rocked their hips together and gasped against Billy’s lips. Shoved his hand under Billy’s shirt and said, “You should take this off,” as Billy said, “Fuck, Steve, wait.”

“What?” Steve asked, almost laughed a little, because they were still kissing, and wait didn’t seem like it was happening anytime soon.

After a few more kisses, Billy pushed on Steve’s shoulders. “I’m serious,” he said. “Stop.”

Steve frowned and sat back on his heels. “What?” he asked.

Billy sat up as well, taking a moment to breathe deep, eyes on Steve’s chest as he wiped a hand over his mouth. “You’ve just gotta know something.”

Steve’s blood went cold. “Please don’t tell me you have AIDS.”

“What?” Billy’s eyes snapped up, corners of his mouth curling, mean. “No, I don’t fucking have AIDS, Jesus fucking Christ.”

“Well you could! I don’t know what you’ve—”

“Andy’s not your baby.”

The other shoe dropped, landed with tremendous thud between Steve’s ears and echoed all the way down to his stalled lungs. “What the fuck do you mean?” he said, frozen over Billy like some dumbstruck statue.

Billy was looking at Steve’s shoulder, fists clenching and unclenching between their bodies as his mouth motored. He said, “Well, he is your baby in all the ways that matter, like, he has your DNA, but—”

“But what, Billy? What ‘but’ could there possibly be?” And heat was rushing back into Steve, rage twisting his insides.

“He’s your baby, but he didn’t – I put him on your porch.”

Steve scrambled off the bed and hit the dresser. Bones rattling, he snapped, “You did what?”

All of the pieces from the last few months started to line up real fast, vomit fizzling and frothing in Steve’s stomach like vinegar mixed with baking soda. Why Billy had been so nice. Why Jonathan thought Andy’s mom could be a guy. Why Billy looked the way he did with Andy in his arms.

Steve was going to throw up. He was going to punch Billy in the face, then he was going to throw up. “Why? What the fuck, Billy. You ruined my fucking life,” he said.

Billy winced like he’d been struck, had the same wide-eyed expression he’d worn when his father had held him by his lapels, shaking him in church. “I couldn’t keep him,” he said. It was more of a croak, really, but rushed, like the metal of a broken tap giving way before the water started shooting out.

“You saw what my dad is like. What he does. What do you think he would do to my kid? I couldn’t fucking let him do that. And it’s not like I could leave home, either. I don’t have anything.” He took a deep breath around his clogged throat, every word he spoke sounding angrier and angrier, growing louder and louder, faster and faster. He wasn’t crying, not yet. He said, “I knew he was yours the second I found him on my porch. Shit, Steve, he just – I just knew. And I knew you were the only person I could trust with him.”

“How?” Steve shouted back. “That doesn’t make any sense, Billy. Even if you wanted a baby with me—”

“I didn’t!” Billy threw his hands up. “You think there’s any way I would think this was a good idea? I can’t even figure out how he could have happened if you don’t fucking love me.”

And that was the crux of it, really. That Billy was in love with him, had been in love with him the whole time.

Steve crossed his arms in front of his chest, caving in on himself as he stared across the room. “Tell me what you think happened, then,” he said, words measured, impatient.

Billy scrubbed over his eyes, said, “I don’t fucking know, alright? Just. It was so fucking bad when I got here. My dad was being worse than ever. I had to break up with my kind-of girlfriend and couldn’t call any of my friends in Cali. And then this town is shit, and you – I knew I was screwed from the moment I saw you. I’d thought some guys were hot in LA, but not the same way. And I was a huge dick about it.”

His words were running together, thoughts all disconnected. A broken tap spraying and spraying.

“And then there was all that weird shit that happened where I wrecked your face and my sister fucking drugged me. And then she started threatening me too, like I wasn’t already getting that at home. So all I could do was get lost or hide in my fucking house like some bitch.

“And I was just so fucking messed up – about everything, and my family, and you. So, all I can guess is that the universe thought it was being fucking funny. Like, look at this jackass.” He laughed, wet and a little snotty, tears bleeding down his cheeks. “He’s so fucking lonely that we gotta invent a person for him. Who cares if it fits into his life, right?

“And I thought maybe, you know, since this baby shit is supposed to be a joint thing, maybe you’d been thinking of me too, so it wasn’t just me losing my mind, it was part of something? But you had no fucking clue who the other parent could be, so I couldn’t just say something like, hey, I know you might beat the shit out of me for this, but that’s my kid. I know what happens to queers in towns like this, and if you didn’t want me, and you didn’t understand, it could have gone so fucking bad.

“I didn’t mean to push my way into your life so much. I just wanted to help out a bit and see him sometimes. And see you. And I know all of this is fucked up and shitty.”

It was a lot.

Steve took some deep breaths, brows downturned and mouth partly open, trying to reconcile the Billy he knew with the man cracked open on his bed, the one with the goopy egg-yolk heart spilling over his sheets.

“It is shitty,” Steve said.

Billy looked at his hands.

“Why did you kiss me?”

Billy glanced up but didn’t meet his eyes, licked his lips, said, “It just felt like one of those moments. Like, you know, right before you kiss a girl, when you think she might want you to? And I’d already been trying to give you and Andy space, because I knew I couldn’t do this forever, so at least if you thought I was disgusting and kicked me out it would have been final. Would have given me a real reason to stay away.”

The room was heavy and bleak, Billy’s slumped shoulders the most pathetic thing Steve had ever seen. Outside, cars rumbled up and down the street, animals scurried in and out of bushes. Someone honked their horn, a baby cried.

Shit, Andy.

“I should go,” Billy said.

“You stay right fucking there,” Steve said. He jabbed a finger towards the bed as he walked out to the nursery.

Andy was bawling in his crib, tiny fists flailing and cheeks plum-red. He looked like his father, Steve thought, and it sliced right through his intestines.

“C’mere, little man,” he said, plucking Andy up. He smelled like he needed a change, and maybe a feeding, from the way he was wailing. It seemed Steve could never feed him enough, which doctors assured him was normal, but still made him feel like he was always a step behind.

Apparently, he was a lot of steps behind.

He changed Andy and took him downstairs to get a bottle, not brave enough to look at Billy in the bedroom as he passed. Part of him hoped this was all a fucked-up dream, just his subconscious mashing shit from his day together in ways he wouldn’t understand when he woke up. It felt logical like Dustin wearing a tiger costume to school was logical, just correct enough to be plausible without it being right.

He sat in the glow of the paused TV as he fed Andy, letting the wheels in his mind turn amid the blue and green.

Andy had his father’s eyes and his father’s smile. Steve’s eye shape, Billy’s eye colour. Steve’s birthmarks, Billy’s dimples. Now that Steve knew, there was so much Billy in Andy that it was overwhelming, even if he was seeing him in half-cast shadows.

Things still didn’t make sense, and nothing was okay, but as their son sat in Steve’s lap, in the only house their son had ever known, Steve knew it couldn’t have worked any other way. It sucked. It was fucking awful, and unplanned, and unfair. But no matter how Andy was born, he was in a home where he was safe, warm, and loved.

And Steve cried, angry and open, because he knew Billy’s home wasn’t any of those things.

 

Steve stepped back into the bedroom and clicked the door shut behind him. He’d dried his cheeks and put Andy back to bed, but that still left Billy.

While he’d been gone, Billy had apparently taken to lying on his side, not sleeping, just sort of staring towards the window like he could see stars through the closed blinds. Honestly, Steve was surprised Billy had even stayed, because he was pretty sure he’d heard Billy listen to exactly no one, ever, in far less awkward situations.

He cleared his throat and said, “So, I don’t love you.”

Like a dick.

Billy grimaced and sat up.

“Wait, I don’t mean—” Steve put both his hands out, “—fuck, that’s not what I meant. I mean, I don’t know what this shit is, okay? But I get it, I think. And I don’t love you, because I’m not – I hadn’t really thought about it until tonight, alright? When you kissed me. But I do like you. And I love Andy. And I’m still fucking mad at you, but.”

He wasn’t sure where that ‘but’ was going. The script he’d come up with when he was putting Andy to bed had fallen apart the second he’d opened his flappy, useless mouth.

Billy’s expression was crumpled up and unreadable, scared, maybe, and it was the least-Billy thing Steve had ever seen. Steve took another deep breath and squeezed his fists at his sides. “I want this to work,” he said, like it could be easy.

“I can go,” Billy said, getting up.

“No. Fuck.” Steve stayed firmly planted in the doorway, tugging on his hair. He didn’t know what they needed to do, or even where he wanted them to end up, but he knew where they could start. “Just. I’m going to change my pants. And I’m going to turn off the light. And you’re going to sleep on the left side of the bed, and when Andy cries around three, you’re going to get up and feed him.”

If Billy had complaints, he didn’t voice them, just gave a somewhat stilted nod and peeled off his jeans while Steve changed.

Once Steve settled into bed, facing Billy’s back, Billy finally whispered, “Sorry.”

“You’re an asshole,” Steve said.

The duvet was too warm on top of them, too thick for early October. Steve knew that if he shifted his legs, his knees would eventually fold into Billy’s, like Billy had folded into his life. Without Billy around, Steve had wanted to complain about silence.

Softer than before, Steve said, “I did want you to kiss me.”

So, in the dark, with their baby sleeping down the hall, Billy did.

 

“Please don’t let your friends go in the pool,” Mama said, airport sounds bustling around behind her.

Steve leaned against the counter and pressed the phone to his ear, trying not to roll his eyes. “It’s cold out, Mama,” he said. “No one is going to want to use the pool. Trust me.”

“Okay, and don’t let any of them near your father’s liquor cabinet—”

“Most of them don’t even drink. And no one is going to get drunk when Andy is around. Trust me, Mama, a baby is a giant party killer.”

She made some kind of noise. “You certainly don’t remember the 60s. Please be careful.”

“I will,” he promised. “I gotta go, I think people are here.”

“Okay,” she said. “I love you. Tell Andy I love him. Don’t ruin my house!”

“Bye, Mama!” Steve hung up.

Billy and Max were already kicking their shoes off in the front foyer, Billy in a deep green button-up and Max dressed as a skeleton. Max scowled, pointed a finger at Steve, and said, “What are you supposed to be?”

“Uh,” Steve looked down at his white t-shirt and jeans. “I’m a stay-at-home dad?”

She rolled her eyes. “Which is different from how you normally are how, exactly?”

“Normally I’m an over-tired, full-time working dad.”

“So you’re basically lame, either way,” Dustin said, shoving around Max through the half-open door, nearly knocking her over in the process. “You couldn’t even get a costume for your own party?”

“Hey, I got Andy a costume. Halloween is for children, remember? I invited you because you’re children.”

“And Nancy and Jonathan are what? Senior children?” Mike asked, opening the door more and pushing until Dustin’s muddy shoes were off the doormat and on the hardwood. Steve’s mama was going to lose it.

“Jesus Christ, next time I won’t rent you shits R rated films and buy you candy, then.”

It didn’t appear to be an effective threat, the foyer suddenly too full of people in costumes juggling backpacks as they tried to remove their shoes. At least ten muddy footprints were stamped on the floor instead of the doormat, and Steve was going to pretend he didn’t see El’s green witch makeup smeared on the wall.

“Where’s Andy, anyway?” Nancy asked. She was a Greek goddess, maybe, or an angel.

“He was taking a nap, but he’s probably up now, with all this.” Steve waved his hands at the group. “I’ll go grab him.”

Upstairs, everything was muffled in the cool dark, hall lights left off in favour of the setting sun. Maybe Andy was still sleeping, if he wasn’t crying. He usually woke with a demanding wail, and Steve could relate.

“A dinosaur, really?” Billy asked, stepping out of the nursery. Steve should have known, but it still caught him off guard, every time he found Billy with Andy in his arms, Andy clutching at Billy’s clothes, content.

“Okay, you have to admit, he’s a fucking cute dinosaur,” Steve said, stepping in to pop Andy’s soother back into his mouth. “And you can’t say shit. What are you supposed to be, anyway?”

“Uh, a vampire?”

“I didn’t know the criteria for being a vampire was wearing a green shirt.”

“If you want, I could dress up as a stay-at-home dad, but you’d have to take your shirt off for me,” Billy said, before giving him a kiss.

“You’re the worst.”

Billy kissed him again.

“Not in front of the baby.”

Billy laughed, loud, and headed down the stairs, where people were already shouting over movies. Steve needed a moment to collect his breath before he followed, already sure he had made a terrible, terrible mistake. He was going to need a beer, and candy, and to maybe hire a maid service in the morning.

“Steve!” Dustin said, the second Steve entered the kitchen. “Do you know that Billy has your baby?”

Christ.

Steve pulled open the fridge to grab a beer, glancing over to where Billy had Andy on his hip and a beer pressed to his lips. Right. He took his time opening his own bottle, took a sip, before shrugging.

“Billy, do you know you’re holding my baby?”

“Am I?” Billy asked. Glanced down at Andy like he’d never seen him before, squinted. “Weird.”

“Huh,” Steve said.

“And you’re okay with this?” Dustin asked, waving a hand.

“Dude, chill out,” Steve said. “What’s the worst he could do? Drop him?”

Dustin gasped. “Did he drop you?”

Steve shoved his beer into Dustin’s hands, slapped him on the back. He said, “It’s fine, Henderson.”

And it was, actually.

Then Dustin took a gulp from the bottle and spat it on Steve. “Holy fuck, why do you drink this?” he shrieked, wiping his tongue with his hand.

“What the fuck?” Steve said, as he yanked his wet shirt from his skin. “And you think it’s gross when Andy does that?”